The Music Academy Opera Showcase

It’s no secret that the opera is the focal point for the vocal program at the Music Academy of the West.

Each summer, singers are auditioned and chosen for their abilities to fill the roles for the fully staged performances that culminate in early August. This year, it’s “La Boheme,” Puccini’s popular tale of two Bohemian artists’ trials and tribulation in love and commerce in Paris, featuring some of the composer’s most haunting melodies.

Rehearsals in various forms go on all summer, and the principals have a demanding workload. Which is why, in most years, they’ve largely been excused from doing anything too strenuous in the Academy’s annual “Opera Showcase” presentation of relatively short excerpts and arias from some of the more famous and popular operas.

Not this year.

“No one is coasting this year,” said Warren Jones, head of the vocal piano and interpretation program at MAW and music director for “Opera Showcase.” “We have a delightful program, but it’s very challenging – musically, vocally, and dramatically – for every single person in it,” he says.

While it is true that it’s mostly those students that don’t have leading roles in “La Boheme” who will take more time at center stage for “Opera Scenes,” which will be presented at Abravanel Hall at 2 pm Saturday July 14 and 7:30 pm Monday July 16, all the students have been cast in at least one of the scenes from eight different operas that comprise the program.

“Every singer and every pianist must be represented in repertory that’s good for them, something that’s meaningful – a useful chunk of singing – because all of the singers need to be on their feet working,” Jones explained. “We want them to tackle things that are from works they will be able to do at some point later in their lives.”

And once again this year, the focus is on the drama, Jones said.

“Lotfi and I both want to work on pieces that involve dramatic insight,” Jones explains, referring to Lotfi Mansouri, an alumnus of the Academy and longtime music director of the San Francisco Opera, who is the stage director for “Opera Showcase.”

“We like to work together because while he has a keen understanding of course of the drama and the words and stage directions, he also gets involved in the music, what it asks and requires,” Jones said. “Likewise, I come from the music, but one of my passions is to work with young singers in understanding the drama. So we work together constantly encouraging the young singers to bring to the process what they have to say. We go at them literally from all sides.”

The three-week intensive program leading up to the showcase becomes a question of finding the truth, Jones said. “The truth in the music, in the words,” he expounds, “the drama, in yourself and your technique, and what you want to say. We want to bring that truth forward so that the singers and pianists give an honest, personal performance.”

Thus, the programmers have eschewed such popular selections as Bizet’s “The Pearlfisher” – which is “basically a stand-and-sing duet,” Jones said – in favor of more dramatically challenging pieces such as Isabella and Taddeo’s duet from Rossini’s “The Italian Girl in Algiers.”

“It’s often sung in concert, too, but there’s remarkable dramatic progression within the course of the song; the character arc is very viable, even though it’s a comedic scene,” Jones said.

Other pieces in the program include excerpts from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” Britten’s “Peter Grimes,” Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin,” Humperdinck’s “Hansel & Gretel,” Bellini’s “I Puritani,” and works by Verdi and Beethoven.

The sets will be minimal – just a chaise lounge or a table and chairs, as needed, Jones said.

“The crux of the showcase isn’t about the fanfare of opera, it’s about the young singers understanding what they’re doing,” he said.